J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 21, 2020

“The most appropriate and useful place for the collection”

Yesterday I quoted John Adams’s deed donating his library to the town of Quincy.

The former President also granted the town some of the land he owned to build an academy, where the library was supposed to go, and a new Congregational church.

In February 1827 the Massachusetts General Court approved the incorporation of the Adams Temple and School Fund to oversee the property and investments, collect more money, and bring Adams’s vision to reality.

Adams was clear in his final deed about what his priorities were:
Though I presume not to dictate to the town, yet it is my wish, that the building of the Academy and the establishment of a classical master should be provided for before the Temple, of which I see no present necessity…
For Adams, the resources ideally were to go toward the school, presumably the library inside it, and finally the church. There was already, after all, a serviceable meetinghouse.

Instead, the new church was built from local granite and opened in 1828, two years after Adams died. It is now known as the “Church of the Presidents” since both he and his son John Quincy Adams attended services and were buried there.

The Adams Academy took a lot longer to raise money for. John Adams’s grandson Charles Francis Adams finally saw it become reality in 1872. Four years later, there were 140 boys studying there.

But that school ran into competition from both older academies and newer public and parochial high schools. The Adams Academy closed in 1908. The stone building then hosted other civic and charitable organizations. Since the 1970s it’s been the headquarters of the Quincy Historical Society.

In the mid-nineteenth century, John Adams’s books were housed at various places around Quincy, including the town hall. During this time, a rare copy of Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan disappeared from the collection while autograph hunters cut Adams’s signature out of others. In 1882 the fund’s trustees chose to locate the library not at the academy but in the town’s new Thomas Crane Public Library.

But that arrangement didn’t last, either. In 1893 the Boston Public Library was designing a grand new building in the Back Bay. The president of its trustees wrote to the supervisors of the Adams Temple and School Fund about their thoughts on the John Adams Library:
They are so impressed with the great interest and historical value of the collection that they feel it will not be out of place to ask you if it is not possible to place it in some position where it would be more accessible to the students to whom it would be useful. . . .

As the new Public Library building in Boston is nearing completion, it has occurred to the Trustees that the most appropriate and useful place for the collection would be in that building, where it would be of great use to a great number of students who resort to the Boston Public Library from all parts of the country, and where its value would be increased by the convenience of using it in connection with the large collection on kindred subjects already collected, and where it might also serve as a nucleus for one of the most important constitutional libraries in the United States.
According to Lindsay Swift of the B.P.L., in Quincy the Adams collection “was practically unused for it was of a character little calculated to interest readers in a small community.” What’s more, the larger library’s trustees offered “a separate alcove with a suitable inscription over it” if the books came to Boston.

In November 1893, the Adams Temple and School Fund supervisors decided that “the intent of President Adams would be better carried out by placing the Library where it would be more accessible to students and investigators,” in the words of Charles Francis Adams, Jr. They approved the transfer of the volumes into the new Boston building.

Reports on this transfer, such as in the 17 Dec 1893 Boston Herald, referred to it as a “gift” from the fund to Boston’s future library. At the same time, the fund’s official resolution still referred to those books of John Adams as “the Library belonging to the city of Quincy.” So what institution had legal claim to the old President’s books?

TOMORROW: A call from Quincy in 2020.

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